Faulkner's A Rose for Emily: a constructed world revisited-a Lacanian critique

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 1.3 (A)

Free online reading

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Lacan and language
2.1. Language as ‘a lack’
2.2. The creation of the ‘self’ through language

3. Faulkner ‘reads’ Lacan
3.1. Narrative techniques and the construction of identity
3.2. Repression and ‘abnormality’ in Miss Emily

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Reading about the 19th century American South, one comes across the name of one fiction writer, southern author and chronicler: William Faulkner. William Faulkner is the one to create a colourful world of his own in his Yoknapatawpha County stories, a world populated by various inhabitants with their own ways of living and complex social relationships. As an author of the South, Faulkner even supplies the readers with his own map, him being its ‘sole proprietor and owner’, thus making the Yoknapatawpha-stories reading a full-blood experience of re-creating a forgotten world. The reader gets to know the family clans’ histories in full detail, tracing their complex relations to the small-town community of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, having their mix-blood secrets, psychological dramas, unconscious fears and resistance to intrusion in their well-established Southern world.

One might then ponder on the question: when we read about this world of the Sutpens and the Compsons, Elly and Ikkemotubbe, Hawkshaw the barber and David Hogganbeck, can we actually form a picture of our own, unbiased world of the American South in the 19th century? Or, rather, how do we experience things of the past, do we re-create that past through what we read, and do we really believe all of Faulkner’s stories of rape and incest? The name of the county being itself constructed, and the inhabitants being a product of an author’s mind, can we believe them, are they a representation of how it used to be? Even if they are, they never used to be real, and what we form in our minds after having read all these stories, is an image of the image, a copy of something which never existed apart from being born in an artist’s mind.

In my paper I am trying to trace how this world of Faulkner’s is actually presented to the reader in an entirely constructed way, how it works and how the characters and stories are born and controlled through language, and remain within the realm of language, together with their personal stories and character development, ‘deconstructing’ them with the help of Lacanian theories of language and the unconscious. I chose for that a somewhat gothic short story, one of the earliest and most popular stories of Faulkner’s- A Rose for Emily, in which Faulkner exhibits his talent in creating a character by using the community-gossip narrative technique to present us with an image of an old spinster, living her constructed life, totally cut off from this real, ‘normal’ world of Jefferson’s small-town community.

There are two points of convergence between Lacan’s modes of thinking and Faulkner’s ideas of writing fiction, which my paper is based on: the first being the narrative techniques and the creation of the ‘self’ through language in Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily, the second being the psychological side to the character creation, in particular Miss Emily’s abnormality, its possible reasons, development and consequences.

2. Lacan and language

Lacan’s theories of language and the unconscious rely to a great extent on Freud’s earlier works concerning the unconscious and especially the infant development, though Lacan adds a new, linguistic element to them and explains that all of the unconscious lies within the realm of language and there is practically ‘no getting outside it’. Faulkner was not acquainted with Lacan at that time, he never admitted to have read Freud- ‘Freud I am not familiar with’, and most probably he was not. Nevertheless, if one attempts to make a psychological reading of Faulkner’s stories or novels in particular , one cannot but refer to the works of both Freud and Lacan.

Referring to Lacanian modes of thinking, one cannot but mention his re-reading of the classical linguistic theories of the function of language and the relation between words and the outside world. In his seminal paper The insistence of the letter in the unconscious, Lacan explains that the only ‘place’, the locus in which we can find truth is the realm of words:

‘And how could a psychoanalyst of today not realise that his realm of truth is in fact the word, when his whole experience must find in the word alone its instrument, its framework, its material, and even the static of its uncertainties.’

Lacan thus revises the straightforward and classical explanation of what function language serves: referring to the outside world and denoting things, objects, actions or people. He returns to the Saussurian bi-univocal formula of the sign and the signifier-signified relationship, claiming that its arbitrariness is a complete fallacy and there is no such thing as pure denotation in the language-reality relationship scheme. The meaning of words is never literal, but essentially figurative, and the nature of signification ‘resists’ any explanation, let alone arbitrariness. The signifier denoting a signified cannot be univocally defined, as to Lacan the Signifier itself is the realm of truth, written in a capital S, as compared to the signified, which is always ‘sliding under the signifier’ and is written in a small s in italics. The barrier between the two ‘resists signification’, and both the signifier and the signified are ‘primordially displaced’, which he later on explains in his lecture. Moreover, in questioning the referential use of language, Lacan gives easy-to-follow examples of how we perceive the outer world, as in the ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’ example: we get the meaning of the one term only in connection to the other, thus referring to a term ‘a’, we can only explain it by means of another term ‘b’. We can never actually get to the object to be denoted itself, and by asking the question ‘What is an ‘a’?’, we always get the answer ‘An ‘a’ is a ‘b’, as in the example above-a ‘Ladies’ is a ‘WC’, or ‘ladies’ stands for ‘a toilet’ etc. On the other hand ‘Gentlemen’ is also ‘a toilet’, and both words are put above two identical doors. So language as a ‘tool for reference’ obviously fails to produce univocal correspondence between concepts and objects to be referred to, and furthermore it produces ambiguities. If one is studying a foreign language, and one looks at a dictionary, every single entry in the dictionary will be explained by means of another entry, so a word a particular speaker does not understand will be explained by means of another, more common word, which will in turn be explained by a third one, without ever actually getting outside the realm of language and this never stopping chain of signifiers. Lacan’s point is that meaning travels in this never stopping chain of signifiers-we define an ‘a’, as a ‘b’, the ‘b’ in term is defined by a ‘c’, which creates an ‘infinite metonymy’ of displaced signifiers.

His further argument is that this infinite metonymy is based on a primary metaphor, that is the actual intrusion of the signifier into the signified, saying that the signifier replaces and at the same time ‘kills’ the signified.

..’I use this example..to show how in fact the signifier intrudes into the signified, namely in a form which, not being immaterial, raises the very question of its place in reality’

So the outer world of signifieds is only available to us in a ‘linguistically mediated form’, and what we perceive is meaning travelling in this chain of signifiers. Reality is created by ‘murdering’ the actual things to be referred to, and thus if a Miss Emily says that she does not have to pay taxes in Jefferson, this is actually so and no one can prove the contrary, as we only exist in and by means of language.

2.1. Language as ‘a lack’

Lacan interprets the idea of language killing the things referred to, or the signifieds in the outer world, by referring to psychoanalysis and in particular by re-interpreting Freudian theories of the self, the infant development and the Id-Ego-Superego transition. He reformulated also Freudian basic psychoanalytical terms, such as displacement and condensation, to equal them to linguistic phenomena such as the never-stopping metonymic chain of signifiers, or metonymy, and the second phenomenon concerning the ‘murder’ of the reference being metaphor. Therefore, for the explanation of a sign it takes always at least two signifiers, S1 and S2, which are linked in a metonymic chain, and the suppressed subject S.

His reformulation of the Freudian triad is again not a straightforward correspondence, as he introduces his own terms in the child’s development- his three orders are the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. According to Freud, the child goes through the three stages of human development, id-ego-superego, and with the help of the Oedipal and Castration complexes comes to be a productive grown-up individual. The goal is that the unconscious, the primordial and uncontrollable instincts are replaced by consciousness, or in other words the transition between the id and the ego delivers a secure self-identity- ‘Wo es war, soll ich werden’.

For Lacan, the notion of the self is quite unstable and a wholesome self-identity is an illusion and practically unattainable goal. His most famous tenet is that the unconscious itself is structured like a language; that is he reads linguistics through psychology and psychology through linguistics. His Imaginary stage is quite important, as he relates it to his famous mirror-phase of the infant’s development- the phase in which the child perceives itself for the first time as one whole and not as a consisting of discrete parts body, looking at itself in the mirror. However, Lacan argues that this particular mirror image is an illusion and the child can never become one whole with its mirror image, and there is always a lack or a narcissistic desire to become one whole with this ‘Other’ with a capital ‘O’, as he would later define it in his discourse.

Where language comes into play is another reformulation of Freudian thought-the fort/da game, which Freud discovered for his 18 years’ old nephew, who said ‘fort’ when throwing the spool he was playing with, and ‘da’, when he recovered it. For Lacan this game stands for the transition of the child into the Symbolic Order of things, or into language- by saying fort or da, the child actually expresses the lack or loss of the spool he is playing with. So when a lack comes into play, the infant uses words (fort and da) to replace this lack or gap.

Thus the very words we use when writing or speaking indicate a lack or an absence of the things themselves, we only use words when the things are gone, and language refers essentially to non-existent or non-present things.

Signifiers as such do not describe reality, but structure it- and Lacan’s point is that by constantly slipping under the signifier, the signified itself is ‘killed’, or rather the subject is created and introduced in the world as ‘an effect of the signifier’. The reference itself being ‘vacuous’, one might argue that language is about nothing, it is a gap and a lack all the time and there is always something missing, a void, from which language emerges and which it also expresses.

2.2.The creation of ‘the self’ through language

By revising Freudian Id-Ego-Superego scheme of human development, Lacan re-defines also the ‘seat of the stable self’, in his own triad of Real- Imaginary- Symbolic. The Real is the first phase of the infant development, when the infant perceives itself still as united, as one whole with the mother’s body and the outer world and does not have an identity or a sense of self, as there is not a sense of loss or separation from the mother, only a total fulfilment and ‘nature’. This stage of development is not easy to retrieve, as it is inaccessible to language. The next one is the Imaginary-it is a transition stage, in which the ego, the ‘I’ sees itself in the mirror as one whole image- that is the baby looks at its image in the mirror and creates a holistic picture of itself, consisting of one whole body as contrasted to an image of discrete body parts such as legs, arms, etc. For Lacan this image is an illusion, a misrecognition, ‘méconnaissance’, a failure to recognise itself, therefore he calls it the ‘Imaginary stage’ of development, as this is the first time a child perceives a form of ‘the other’. This stage is to him a tension point, an unstable seat of the self, with constant intrusions from the Id and Superego, as this image is essentially faulty and also it is mixed with the baby’s perception of actual others, such as the mother, father etc. The child’s body is no longer fragmented, but on the other hand this first identification is an external one, and not a separate internal sense of identity. The realm of the Imaginary is essentially pre-linguistic and pre-oedipal, there is no sense of lack or absence, as there is an ‘ideal ego’, a misrecognition of a whole self on part of the infant. The child’s self-recognition will never actually match with the ‘self’, as it is only an image.

The last stage is the Symbolic Order, or the ‘domain of the signifier’ as he puts it, when the infant experiences a loss or a lack for the first time. Lacan claims that in order to form an idea of a self, the child has first to form the notion of otherness, or of loss. By the fort/da game, the child enters the symbolic order, as it experiences for the first time a lack or loss and forms a true sense of ‘the Other’ with a capital ‘O’. This is the stage when the child begins actually seeking for its identity, where ‘culture’ comes in and the infant becomes a fully-developed individual.

The Symbolic Order is the domain of language, and the individual becomes an individual by entering into it, as for Lacan the individual self ‘does not transcend the limits of language’, on the contrary, the individual is contained in language , in this realm of signifiers killing the subject; and the subject is in fact a random combination of signifiers. Thus truth is actually an effect of the signifier, truth is a combination and relation of signifiers, and if a Miss Emily is a combination of what townsfolk say, then this is the truth about her and we cannot get to any other form of truth about her. She is created by language, and she makes her entry into the world through language, as Lacan puts it:

‘ For the primary reason that language and its structure exist prior to the moment at which each individual at a certain point in his mental development makes his entry into it.’

The Symbolic order itself experiences a constant lack and displacement, as there is no stable or fixed centre. The

centre of language or the Symbolic Order in Lacanian terms is the Phallus, or the Law-of-the-father. This is another re-interpretation of Freud’s Oedipal complex, and everybody has their desire to capture this centre or Phallus, though no one really has it, or is capable of doing it. Language is marked by a never-ending gap, which has to be fulfilled, but never is. By entering the speaking world, the individual has to submit to these rules and structures of language, but is never actually given the control of the system or the Phallus, and the individual’s desire is always unsatisfied.

Lacan does not offer a key to controlling language, to fixing and stabilising the self, and we invariably re-trace the paths every one of us goes when entering the structure of language and submitting ourselves to the law-of-the-father, in an attempt to fix our stable ‘self’, ‘soul’ or identity.

3. Faulkner ‘reads’ Lacan

Faulkner’s works are placed among the best modern American short stories and novels, as his writing relies to a great extent on some contemporary theories of psychoanalysis, reflecting even the writings of Freud and Lacan. Faulkner did not know personally know either Freud or Lacan, or he never acknowledged having read and drawn on any of their theories. Nevertheless, his way of narrating the Yoknapatawpha County stories, and especially his more famous novels, such as The Sound and The Fury, or Absalom, Absalom!, conveys a certain influence, however unconscious, of the structures of such psychoanalytical theories.

Faulkner often confessed that he was not in a conscious control of what he was writing in his stories, in a way that many post-modern authors do, and he was simply putting down on the sheet ‘the voices he was hearing’ in his mind. Thus he actually stated that the nature of his art was to a great extent a product of unconscious meaning, and the text he was putting down on the sheet was this unconscious meaning of his mind, ‘returning’ in a written form. This unconscious return is Lacanian in its nature, as Lacan once stated:

‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.’

The same idea of the omnipresent unconscious as an organising element of psychic experience seems to be the underlying structure of Faulkner’s narrative techniques. His characterisation is never a product of the omniscient narrator; rather, his characters are formed through the language of others -the small-town community gossip. The portrayal of the self, or its creation, seems to be a ‘cumulative effect of the language of others’, and the identity of a character is entirely dependent on this linguistic creation. We cannot access a Faulknerian character in any other way, they are created and controlled entirely by and in language, by people’s phrases and instructions, or in Lacanian terms by a clustering of signifiers around a proper name, such as Miss Emily Grierson. Form and content in this character representation are interwoven, and the ‘we’ and ‘they’ mixed, even confused narration in A Rose for Emily very much depicts the thoughts, conscious and unconscious meanings and failings of the community telling the story, voiced by Faulkner the author. Every meaning is thus sustained by another, related meaning, and no one can get outside the realm of language, as the world is accessible to us only in a linguistically mediated form. Thus the Yoknapatawpha characters make their entry in the world exclusively through language, their own or the others’ gossip and linguistic construction. Both Faulkner and Lacan address the problem of the creation of the self in language, and both of them mimic formally the workings of the unconscious; I will try to trace this character and identity creation in Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily by referring to basic Lacanian terms reflecting his modes of thinking about language, its role and function with regard to the unconscious.

The second point of convergence between both authors is that in their works the ‘repressed meaning’, or ‘the repressed other’ always returns in a certain form and enacts its role, this being a major reason for development of neurosis and abnormality. The construction of the ‘I’, the location of the self is dependent on a true recognition of the outer world and reality, which inevitably goes through the crucial in Lacanian, as well as Freudian terms, Oedipal stage and the Mirror Phase. In order to truly recognise the ‘self’, one has to form an image of the ‘other’ first, to experience loss and overcome it successfully. The passage from the pre-oedipal and preverbal world into the verbal world under the control of the law-of-the-father is very important to creating and developing a normal, stable and mature self. One should accept the condition of loss and alienation, which marks this passage from the Imaginary phase into the Symbolic one, or accept a feasible, if flawed existence, as compared to an ‘idealised’ one. Faulkner’s characters in general fail to make this smooth transition from the Imaginary into the Symbolic order, and lead a life of misconception , ‘méconnaissance’ detached from reality, failing to comprehend the truth of the new South and re-enacting their initial trauma over and over again. This misconception is central to Miss Emily’s self-constructed world, and in technical terms she would certainly be defined as mad, with her madness developing in the years to a fully-fledged mental disturbance, leading to murder and co-habitation with the body of her dead friend.

3.1. Narrative techniques and the construction of identity

A Rose for Emily is one of the earliest, though most popular short stories of Faulkner, written in a gothic tradition, having in mind the heavy atmosphere of doom and decay of the story and its unexpected, deathly ending. The story is set against Faulkner’s South, his first true southern story about his townspeople, in the small town of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, and is included in ‘The Village’.

Miss Emily Grierson is one of the last representatives of her once powerful and rich southern aristocratic family- The Griersons, a kind of a monument of the southern past with its traditions and the presence of slave servants in the house. She lives a secluded life of a spinster, cut off from the outer world and lacking a living relationship with her townspeople. In most of her ways, she reacts to this outer world in an odd way, thus letting people know about her perception of her status in the southern community- she sticks to the old values of aristocracy, and feels that she is better and different in many ways than the other women in town. She has lived a long time with her father, who has driven all the men that once courted her away, and is in some way oppressed by him in not having the choice to marry. In her old age, she reacts in a totally unexpected way of resistance to the changes in the outer environment, to the modernisation of the south and the new social rules. The community of Jefferson see her as a ‘monument’ of past times, to which they have to pay their ‘duty’ and respect. In refusing to adjust to the new social environment, Miss Emily and her strange ways are much commented upon by the local people and especially by women. When her father dies, they even ‘begin to feel sorry for her’, in their hope that she will at last turn normal and not keep her head high up, being the last Grierson. However, her true character evades the whole community as she refuses to accept the death of her father and bury him. Even when she begins her affair with a street-worker Yankee and people perceive her as a normal human being, even if ‘fallen’, she keeps her head high and eventually buys the ‘rat poison’, giving no explanation to anyone, just as she refuses to pay taxes or to let anyone in her house. Her character is both tangible and evading, and even though townspeople seem to have found the key to her oddity, the ending of the story still comes as a surprise even to them.

The creation of her character is very much the product of what people think or say about her, of them expressing their hatred, pity, respect or just changing attitude towards her as ‘an anachronism’ of the southern past. Though Faulkner was supposedly not at his best at creating a character by exclusively using the narration of others, or in this case the community, which he later developed in a fully-fledged form in Absalom,Absalom !, the narration of the story and the creation of Miss Emily’s character is important, as he uses innovative narrative techniques and the changing perspective of the voice of the community. Her identity is mediated through this community point of view, and what we get as an end-image is an accumulation of viewpoints concerning her ‘self’ and identity. The formal side to this representation is also a reflection of this accumulation and changing attitudes, as Faulkner uses a mixture of anonymous ‘we’ and ‘they’ narration, in expressing what actually happened, and how the different individuals or the groups of people belonging to this Jefferson’s community reacted to it.

This unnamed narrator of the story seems at times to actively participate as a character, belonging either to one, or to another community group. The form of narration is always in the plural- either ‘we’, or ‘they’, and the narrator is not quick to give judgements about Miss Emily, rather assuming the role of a patient observer. However, this complex narrator has also access to information about Miss Emily, which is strictly personal and not open to the public, just as her room is. So we might get the impression that this is actually one person, who identifies with a group, or with the whole community of Jefferson in general. The ‘we’ narration is contrasted with the ‘they’ narration, and the portrayal of Miss Emily is on the whole a mixture of ironic and sympathetic attitude towards her.

We first learn about her at the moment of her death, in a retrospection- she dies, and the whole town goes to her funeral,

‘the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant- a combined gardener and cook- had seen in at least ten years.’

So the first thing the reader gets to know is some sort of an oddity about this Miss Emily- no one has ever been in her rooms, apart from her servant for the last few decades; and what is more important, obviously no one of ‘us’ has seen the inside of her house-as ‘our whole town’ goes to her funeral, curious as to the opening of her rooms, and paying ‘our’ respect at the same time.. The ‘corporate’ narrator is identified with the whole community of the town Jefferson. The story unfolds, starting from the point of her funeral, then developing in a seemingly random network of impressions, thoughts, attitudes and associations about Miss Emily, related by the community-voice, proceeding to her death and the opening of the room upstairs. What follows after the introduction of her funeral is a description of the outside of her house, having its peculiar air of ‘stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps’. Her house itself is a monument among the modernised town, just as Miss Emily is ‘a tradition, a duty and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town’- the two pictures of an old, decaying house and the image of the old spinster being an obligation dating back to the times of the Confederate war are very much parallel, reminding of a past which is no longer relevant to the new South.

The next thing we learn is how her taxes were ‘remitted into perpetuity’ by Colonel Sartoris, who was obviously a real gentleman of his time, making a lady like Miss Emily Grierson believe that her family had contributed to the town’s welfare and she should be freed from paying taxes in return. Miss Emily believes him and bluntly refuses to pay her tax when the new generation of authorities comes and ‘they’ send her the tax notice. This is the first moment when language comes into play to denote non-existent things, and create a reality of misconception or negation. Colonel Sartoris says that Miss Emily does not have to pay her tax, and this is so, a state created purely by using language, by him using words to render her immune from the common people’s civil obligations. Her reaction to the new town authorities demanding for her tax is a total denial even of their existence and rights as an authority; she resists their intrusion in her world by denying their very existence verbally- when entering her house, she just stands and blocks off the Board of Aldermen by saying:

‘I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy yourselves’

At the suggestion that they are actually the city authorities, Miss Emily reacts in the same cold manner, shutting herself off from the truth by calling the sheriff’s notice ‘a paper’, and carrying on with:

‘...Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff..I have no taxes in JeffersonSee Colonel Sartoris’

This is how a signifier comes to replace a signified- a character says ‘Colonel Sartoris’, entirely disinterested in the fact that this person being referred to is already dead. This is an extra-linguistic fact, and the signifier of the proper name ‘Colonel Sartoris’ denotes an empty space, a non-existent person. This construction of a reality- her reality- lies entirely within language, and has no referent whatsoever in the outside world. Miss Emily shuts her off in her constructed state of nobility and being freed from tax, and at the same time she ‘vanquishes’ the Board of Alderman by just saying ‘I have no taxes in Jefferson’. The town authorities are defeated; they submit to a reality patterned by one phrase, and cannot prove the contrary, as long as she stays within her linguistically created world.

In this first episode we are presented with the interior of her house and her black servant Tobe, the visit of the town authorities being the reason for that, as well as with her outer appearance. Her house smells of ‘dust and disuse-a close, dank smell’, and there is no sun or light inside it- not a ‘single sun-ray’. If the anonymous narrator has been tolerant and sympathetic towards her disregard for the new laws and her sticking to the old order of things, using the ‘they’-narration, ‘they’ being the authorities lacking in understanding towards a real lady of the South, the following description of her house and her appearance he gives discloses a kind of a value judgement about her face and body:

‘She looked bloated, like a body submerged in motionless water, and of pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough..’

There is something deathly about her, as we come to learn from this first description. She looks like a corpse taken out of the water, living almost dead in a house shut off from light and life outside it. We might then wonder-why do we get this description, does it mean anything, does this anonymous author point at something which would come out as characteristic of her later on in the story? We learn that the decay sits everywhere, in her house from the inside and outside, and in her own body.

Thus in this first passage we form an image of Miss Emily, based on the ‘they’ narration, giving in a random order information about her behaviour and impressions about her appearance. We do not really know whose impressions are these, is it one single character belonging to ‘them’, the group of authorities, who also has little access to her personality and is relating the story, or is it a standard omniscient narrator sharing his associations upon seeing her (though if there was an omniscient narrator, he would have certainly had the information about her right from the start and would not have had to use this intrusion into her house to describe her).

There is no chronological order in the narration, it is rather performed in an associative chain- it goes back to relate an event about Miss Emily which happened thirty years before that moment , having as its source the word ‘vanquished’, or the way in which Miss Emily defeated the new generation of authorities is directly linked to the way she defeated their fathers with ‘the smell’. The transition from one key event of her life to another is again relying on language, or on a single word- ‘vanquish’, which links the two episodes of her life, aiming at the creation of her identity. So we learn about the smell which develops in her backyard and disturbs the townsfolk, though ‘they were not surprised’. ‘They’ contribute this smell to the failings of her only black male servant- the women are sure he is unable to keep a household of a lady Grierson, and the men handle the smell by not saying a word to Miss Emily and simply ‘sprinkling lime’ in her garden to get rid of it. From this point the narrative returns to her father’s death, giving for the first time this ‘they’-‘we’ mixed perspective as to what happened to her in the form of a townsfolk gossip. She is left all alone and people begin ‘to feel sorry for her’, remembering the madness which runs in the family Grierson. We ‘hear’ that ‘none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such.’, giving the impression that this community speaker or voice is actually being critical to the Griersons who look down on everybody and hold ‘themselves a little too high’. This narrator is identified with the whole community, ‘we’ and ‘the people’ are glad at her being left all alone and broke. The people can at last pity Miss Emily in the hope that she has become ‘humanised’. ‘They’ even want to condole her, being true to Jefferson’s tradition- ‘our’ custom, or the custom of the community as one whole. However, when ‘they’ try again to intrude in her world by offering her help, she again denies the obvious truth by saying that her father is not dead. She protects herself and rejects the reality by using words, in her attempt to overcome a traumatic experience such as the death of her father, she creates a misconceived reality through language and does not want to give the body away, as it stands for an external reality inaccessible through language. Then again we get the community point of view pondering about her possible madness:

‘We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which robbed her, as people will.’

The third and the fourth sections of the story are told completely by the community voice in the form of gossip, which relates to the reader the events around Miss Emily linked in a chain of impressions and thoughts of the community, who have been spying for some time on Miss Emily and her new boyfriend-the street worker Homer Barron, a Northerner, or a Yankee, as we come to learn. The ‘we’-speaker tells the reader about the reaction of the old ladies, who are first glad that she ‘would have an interest’, and then think that she has ‘fallen’:

‘Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day labourer’

This ‘we’-point of view is mixed with a clear ‘they’-narration-the old people, who say to one another ‘Poor Emily’ are thus contrasted to the ladies, who are referred to as the ‘we’, being also sympathetic and bearing with Miss Emily’s wish to share her life with a Northerner. From this new period in her life, in which ‘we’ see her keep her head even higher than before, demanding for the recognition of her dignity, follows an entirely new event, which is connected simply by way of association on part of the corporate narrator: she keeps being as proud and ‘impervious’ in her love affair with a Yankee day labourer, as she was when ‘she bought the poison’.

Next, the reader learns from the narrator functioning as a third person, who has obviously been present at the druggist’s store, how she buys the poison without giving any explanation, and how she opens it back home and reads the label saying ‘For rats’. So from this generalising voice of the community we get a picture given by someone who had a first-hand experience seeing Miss Emily buying it. What follows in the fourth part is ‘our’ reaction to this event, which is obviously immediately related to the whole community with no delay by this anonymous third person narrator, who belongs to the community of Jefferson; a worrying event which makes the townspeople expect a tragic event to happen, or at least things to change for Miss Emily:

‘So the next day we all said: ‘She will kill herself’; and we said it would be the best thing: When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said; ‘She will marry him’. Then we said, ‘She will persuade him yet’...’Later we said, ‘Poor Emily’

This community voice thus creates the very image of Miss Emily; as the reader does not get much chance to hear her talk or does not get a straightforward authorial description and narration explaining facts of her life in a chronological line, what we are left with are the impressions, reactions and value judgements creating her very existence as a character . The ‘we’ narrator is also ‘not surprised’ to see Homer Barron for one last time, or rather spy on him when entering Miss Emily’s house upon dark, and then comment on him disappearing from town. The associative chain works again to link his disappearance, Miss Emily’s figure framed in the window of her house, and the smell, which makes the men sprinkle her garden with lime. However, there is a contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’ narration in the last section of the story, when the Negro meets the ladies upon her funeral and goes out from the back door not to be seen again. ‘They’-the cousins, the old confederate soldiers and ‘ladies sibilant and macabre’ seem to know her less intimately, confusing facts and dates of her life with those of theirs; whereas the ‘we’ narrator seems to know much more about the recent years of her life, after she has shut herself off from the world, and is not surprised to see the men’s toilet things of ‘tarnished silver’ lying around, with the men himself dead, lying in bed. The surprise comes with her grey hair that ‘one of us’ finds on the pillow next to the men, presuming her having slept next to him all these years.

This shifting of voices throughout the story is typical of many works of Faulkner, and creates a unique atmosphere and images of the small-town American South. This is a corporate anonymous narrator, who creates the portrayal of the characters and the self in the story, using the community gossip as a device, instead of authorial omniscience. Faulkner is actually not present, he is excluded and his characters function on their own through language, just as Lacan claims that ‘he thinks where he is not’, Faulkner is absent in the traditional sense of an author from the works he creates, or ‘the voices’ he records in creating his stories.

On one hand, the thoughts and value judgements circulate in a chain around the image of Miss Emily to present her as a cluster of ‘signifiers around a proper name’, or as a seemingly chaotic cluster of associated impressions and attitudes of the Jefferson community towards her, and thus the reader is given some access to her character purely through the language of others, or her very self is thus created and there is no other way we can recover it outside their voice in the form of town-gossip; and on the other hand Miss Emily creates her own reality entirely and purely within language, claiming that she is freed from federal taxes and not having to pay such, as well as refusing to accept her father’s death by simply denying it.

3.3. Repression and ‘abnormality’ in Miss Emily

Miss Emily is similar to other characters of Faulkner, especially the female ones, in resisting to certain events and changes in their lives and the surrounding reality in an ‘abnormal’ way, often misinterpreting their social role or their role as mothers and wives.

First, she is a monument of the past of the American South, a last representative of a no-longer existing tradition of fixed southern social relations, where the black servants use the back door, gentlemen stand up in the presence of a lady and a Colonel Sartoris has ‘remitted her taxes into perpetuity’. She belongs to the Griersons, a mighty southern aristocratic family, and she has always been protected by their name and by her father, whose ‘spraddled silhouette’ we see ‘clutching the horsewhip’, a power image of a father figure belonging to the old generation of clans with tradition and the dignity of a proud, if dying-out part of the South. Emily is also proud in her turn, ‘keeping her head high’ and thinking of herself as a real lady, belonging to this glorious past, superior and dignified as the last representative of her family. So when the social change in the South makes things work along the modernisation and industrialisation line, she remains true to her southern ‘agrarian’ values, her house itself being a monument and an anachronism of the past among the cotton wagons and the gasoline lamps. Her appearance and image on the first time we see her resembles a dead body taken out of the water, her hair is grey, she is fat and ‘motionless’, and she shuts herself off in her rooms after Homer’s ‘disappearance’, refusing to accept visitors and living ‘dead’ to her townspeople. She murders her lover in her attempt to keep him by her side, locked in her sealed room upstairs, thus turning herself to the love of a corpse and not to a real living person. Similarly, she refuses to accept her father’s death and tries to keep his dead body in her house, and gives it away only after submitting to the social pressure on part of the town of Jefferson, ministers and relatives. She believes that as a survivor of the old order, the town is obliged to pay respect to her and not make her pay taxes or participate socially in any way. Adhering to her lifestyle, she tries to keep this old social order of southern agrarian values ‘into perpetuity’, thus refusing to accept any change or change herself.

However, there is a clear contrast between her and the town, in the way the town accepts her behaviour: as we get to know from the community voice, the ladies and the old men disapprove of her ways and consider her not exactly normal, referring to her mad female relative and the madness as a disease running in the Grierson family. Miss Emily always does things in her own way, she succumbs to the social pressure just once, shortly after the death of her father, in order to let the town have him buried, and in all other cases she reacts in her unconventional, old-fashioned, and towards the end of the story clearly mad way.

Her solution to adjustment and her attempt to keep her lover forever by her side have a psychological explanations, and may well be referred to the theories of Freud and Lacan. Both of them argue that repression at an early age always returns in some way or other, and is expressed by a fully-blown neurosis or abnormality in the later development of the individual, who has failed to make the smooth transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic Order with the help of the Oedipus and the Castration complexes.

Similarly, Miss Emily has been repressed by her father not letting her marry any one of her suitors, because she is supposed to be superior than them ‘and such’. This deprivation of normal human relationships makes her suffer an initial lack, which she wants to fill in later on in her life, by obsessively clinging to her only one lover and eventually murdering him in order to keep him forever. In her life, Miss Emily experiences a number of traumas or losses- first comes the denial of a conventional marriage, then she is in turn deprived of her father, who has deprived her initially, and then her ‘beau’, the cheerful and powerful masculine-type Homer Barron wants to leave her and consequently deprive her of his love. These three events constitute a chain of gaps moving in a progression, which she is trying to artificially fill in by creating her own world. She is unable to overcome this shock of the loss or deprivation, and constructs her own defence mechanisms. In Lacanian terms, her passage from the Imaginary stage into the Symbolic order of things is unsuccessful, as she is unable to accept the rupture or loss in her life when she is denied the ‘man image’, that is she stands for the pre-oedipal and preverbal world of the female sexuality, not wishing to give the corpse of her dead father away, in her need to preserve the whole and the womanly, maternal and literal function. She thus refuses to submit to the paternally-governed world of the Symbolic Register, which is essentially defined by a constant lack and alienation of the subject. So in both cases of her relations with the two men in her life-her father and her lover- she wants to recover this wholeness and her wish to keep their bodies is a displaced wish for re-filling the gap. She wants to capture this which she cannot, the centre and the phallus of the system, and in doing so she just produces a kind of a fetish, or a misconstructed reality of her own.

This construction of her own world by resorting to total introversion is typical of many of the Faulkner’s characters, who misconceive the reality of the new South and refuse to accept it in any way. Miss Emily refuses to accept this ‘flawed existence’, and defends herself and her own existence in her own way, which is shut off from the world of Jefferson and, on the whole, from ‘normal’ people. She sustains her position only by means of seclusion, and the only time when she fails in doing so is her father’s death, when under the social pressure she is bound to have him buried in the conventional way. In the case of her lover, however, no one of the town of Jefferson knows officially that she is keeping a dead body in her locked room, though many suspect her in doing so, especially because of the smell coming from her house, and at the end when we see people opening her room upstairs and examining the wedding presents for the groom, there is no surprise at Homer’s ‘fleshless grin’, him having become one whole with the bed he has been lying on for forty years; and she is thus able to fully express her displaced love for him and her misconstructed idea of a marriage.

Her modes of behaviour are marked by this ‘méconnaissance’, a misconception or a misconstruction of reality, also typical of other female characters in Faulkner’s novels and short stories, and what she creates in turn as e defence mechanism is a constructed, imaginary or idealised reality of her own, distorting and evading normality, believing that the mirror image is her own identity, or rather believing that by preserving the old southern values and the bodies of the two men she loves, she can actually locate her own self and be in harmony with her life and identity. Her denial of paying taxes, acknowledging the new authorities, and going out among common Jefferson townspeople are also part of her only mode of existence and way of survival, trying to defend the little she is left with in any way she can. This reality of Miss Emily is also fortified by her use of language, by her declaration that she does not have taxes in Jefferson and that Colonel Sartoris is the one in charge of that, or the way she makes the druggist sell her arsenic ‘for rats’, using words as a back-up of her constructed world.

No matter how mad she might seem in making this world of hers, which is also uncontrollable, if created by Faulkner himself, she is a character of a remarkable will power, and the gothic tale is a real tribute, a rose to her denial to the flawed ‘normal’ reality of Jefferson and the everyday life of common townspeople.

4. Conclusion

Perhaps there are many other possible readings of this short story of Faulkner, as it was one of his first short stories, and being a relatively short ‘short story’ , he did not succeed in fully developing his later stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, and the pure reflection of the workings of the unconscious and the minds of his characters in language and his writing. However, the psychological side to Faulkner’s characters has always attracted the attention of critics, as many of his characters seem to be ‘in conflict with their hearts, their fellows and their environment’. Miss Emily Grierson is one of these characters in conflict with both her heart and her community, and her reaction to this conflict can be defined as mad, or in the terms of psychoanalysis it may have many possible explanations, like her unsuccessful adjustment to the law-of-the-father governed world and her response in creating a misconceived reality. A Lacanian reading of the story is suitable in the sense that psychoanalytical terms are brought together with linguistic explanations, and such a critique is feasible as to the narration of the story itself and the development of her character on the other hand are inter-related and all of them lies within the realm of language. The way we access any information about her character is through language, no matter if this is the community gossip reflecting the attitudes of different individuals within the community of Jefferson, or her, using her own words to construct her world of seclusion in response to the demands of this community, and thus presenting her image and self as a cluster of signifiers, gathering around her, though originating from different sources through language. We do not have access to any of her characteristics in a straightforward way, and Faulkner also does not seem to be in full control of his gothic tale, as he does not have the full information about her right from the start, and what the reader is left with is a re-construction based on guesses and implications and the ‘we’-‘they’ exchange in the story. The reader witnesses Miss Emily’s character and self being born in language, the signifier coming to totally replace the signified itself in Lacanian terminology, and gains access to this character also through the language, or words Faulkner puts together on the sheet.

On the other hand, we also witness how repression returns in Miss Emily’s personality in the form of developing madness, or how she tries to preserve the little that she has left in her life, by employing horrible means of keeping her lover by her side. This side of her reflects a failure in her development as a grown-up, mature individual, who has come to terms with the lack and loss in her life successfully and does not seek to replace it by using fake means. She has obviously not overcome the loss, and she strives to remain in the realm of the pre-oedipal world of sexuality and maternity, filling in the gap with an imaginary lover, who is no longer real and living. Lacan’s terminology is helpful in this case, as it also draws on Freudian modes of thinking about the development of the infant and the maturation process, and explains to some extent her attempt to remain in this pre-verbal world by murdering a person. Her world is a construction, it is entirely imaginary and therefore her ways are defined as ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’ by the community, as they express a denial of the community values and lifestyle. Faulkner uses also innovative techniques in presenting the ‘voices he hears’ to his reader, or rather presenting thoughts and unconscious processes in a linguistic form, and not even controlling them, assuming the role of an omniscient narrator. This way of writing may be said to reflect Lacan’s idea that the unconscious is structured like a language, and the characters are born in this unconscious brought to the daylight of literature, being created by their own speech and thoughts and existing entirely within them.

In the story A Rose for Emily these are the two important aspects, prone to criticism based on Lacan: one is the creation of the self or the identity through language, and the contribution of the shifting ‘we’-‘they’ narration to characterisation, and the second is a possible explanation for Miss Emily’s reactions to the outside world, and her ‘abnormality’. Both aspects are in constant interplay with each other, as they exist only by means and within language, and are available to the reader also in a linguistically mediated form, produced by the author William Faulkner. We cannot be sure that all of this happened, but there is no other way to gain access to the true story than relying on language, and there is no other re-created past of the American South than the one re-created by language. Faulkner is a real master of not-controlling this language, and yet creating a tangible, full-blood picture of the South, and his Miss Emily can serve as the prototype of all old spinsters, living in a decaying world of theirs, separated from the world and defending their position with determination and strong will.

Works Cited

Bowie, Malcolm. ‘Jacques Lacan’. Structuralism and Since. Ed. John Sturrock. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1979. pp 116-153.

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: First Encounters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. pp.7-42

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories. New York: Vintage Books, Random House Publishers, 1977

Fowler, Doreen. Faulkner: The Return of the Repressed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. pp1-31.

Kartiganer, Donald M. and Abadie, Ann J. (ed.). Faulkner and Psychology. Jackson: University Press of

Mississippi, 1994.

Klages, Mary. ‘Jacques Lacan’. 08 Oct. 2001. Colorado University.

< http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/lacan.html >

Lacan, Jacques. ‘The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious’, 1957. Ed. Jacques Ehrmann. Yale French

Studies 36/37, 1966

Miller, Jacques-Alain. ‘Much Ado About What?’. Lacan and the Subject of Language. Ed. Ellie Ragland-

Sullivan and Mark Bracher. New York: Routledge, 1991. pp 21-36.

Skei, Hans H. Reading Faulkner’s Best Short Stories. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

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Zeitlin, Michael. ‘Update: William Faulkner (1/31/03; Journal Issue)’ 09. May 2002. University of British

Columbia.< http://www.english.upenn.edu/CFP/archive/2002-05/0064.hmtl >

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Faulkner's A Rose for Emily: a constructed world revisited-a Lacanian critique
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Svetla Rogatcheva (Author), 2003, Faulkner's A Rose for Emily: a constructed world revisited-a Lacanian critique, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/108036


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